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The Inner World of Doc McStuffins

February 5th, 2014 | Jonathan Gray

doc-mcstuffins1“It’s just a kids show. Why do you have to read so much into it?”

With that preemptive objection behind us, and with the answer “because I’m having fun,” let’s talk about Doc McStuffins’ mental wellbeing.

For those who don’t know, Doc McStuffins is a pretty excellent original show on Disney Junior. Doc is a young girl who clearly admires her mother, a doctor, and thus she too has become a doctor, of toys. She has a magical stethoscope that brings toys to life when nobody else is around. Or does it? I can’t help but wonder, as I watch this show with my daughter, whether this is Doc’s imagination, whether she is indeed magical, or whether she’s delusional.

The episode that led to this post is one in which Doc herself must go in for a check-up, since she’s sick. At her mother’s clinic, the nurse is voiced by Loretta Devine … who viewers/listeners would recognize as the voice of Doc’s own nurse, Hallie the Hippo. This was a fun choice, since it’s the first suggestion I’ve seen in the series that Doc is actually making all of this toy doctor stuff up: Hallie speaks like Doc’s mom’s nurse since that’s her referent for how nurses speak. And yet in another episode, Doc’s mom comes into her room and says she could’ve sworn she heard another voice in there; Doc defuses the comment by explaining that it was just a talking toy phone (which, this time, it was), but dramatically the snippet of dialogue plays with the idea that her toys are indeed talking to her, and that her mom almost walked in on this. So the show is inviting me to play along. I will, after the fold … Read more…

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“Best” Opening Credit Sequences, Part 3: The Masses Speak

July 26th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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But wait: there’s more!!

When I posted a link to the first installment of this mini-series on Facebook, I got a whole bunch of recommendations and votes from friends. Partly to honor those suggestions (especially since there are a bunch I hadn’t seen), partly to record the list for future use, I thought I’d put some here. The masses speak (wherein “the masses” = my friends on Facebook. That’s how Marx defined them too, right?). Even more may, in theory, come later.

~~ Read more…

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“Best” Opening Credit Sequences, Part 1

July 24th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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Recently, Salon posted an odd list of the Top 29 HBO credit sequences by Daniel D’Addario. We know it’s odd for several reasons: (1) who does Top 29s?, (2) the rankings are rather absurd, imho, and (3) no, really, who does Top 29s?

 

I’m not going to re-rank them, in part because that would just seem snippy, in part because I’ve only ever had HBO when a cable company gives it to me for free, or when The Wire was finishing, so my HBO viewing has been spotty, and in part because I’m tired of HBO taking all the credit for credit sequences. But it did get me thinking about best credit sequences. And thus I thought I’d respond by trying to list (though not rank) some of the best credit sequences I know.

 

Unlike Myles McNutt, whose attack of Salon’s list first brought my attention to it, I don’t believe a list needs a criteria (“I like what I like” seems fair to me), but I do want to lay out some ground rules first:

 

1. I am not saying these are objectively, unequivocally the best. I am saying I personally like them. So to the inevitable objection of “How could you say X about Y, then not include Z?”, I simply respond, “Cause that’s what I feel.”

 

2. I am considering these as parts of their texts. While opening credit sequences can definitely be enjoyed in and of themselves, devoid of consideration of the show to which they’re attached, I am considering them as entities that are trying both to capture something important about the show and communicate it to newbies, and serving as a re-entrypoint for returning viewers, beckoning them back in and suggesting why they should do so. Thus, for instance, I think True Blood’s opening credit sequence is pretty lousy, to be honest, for while it’s brilliant in and of itself, it lies to me by suggesting a different tone. Okay, yes, it tells me we’re in the South and that we’re examining Dark Things, but it doesn’t adequately gesture (to my liking) to the tone, address, style, or pitch of the show.

 

3. Put the above two rules together and we arrive at a third: I can only list and discuss opening credit sequences for shows I’ve actually seen. I read impassioned defense of the Salon-maligned credit sequence for How to Make it in America on Facebook, for instance, but I’ve never seen this show. Also, I only moved to the US ten years ago, so I was at the mercy of what was exported and what wasn’t growing up, which means that I’ve not seen a great deal of older shows.

 

That said, let’s begin. I’ve broken them into three categories: Best Telling of Backstory, Love the Music But the Rest is Just Meh, and Best Thematic Rendering. The latter category will be in the next post, broken into yet more sub-categories. Read more…

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Who is Roger Chapman?

July 16th, 2013 | Jonathan Gray

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In the Summer of 2013, Roger Chapman came to prominence on the Teaching Media Facebook group, achieving folk hero status. But who is this man, and what does the record tell us about him?

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Roger Chapman was born on April 17, 1965, the same day as William Mapother. Just as Mapother would later enjoy brief fame for his role as the secret Other, Ethan, who infiltrates the protagonists’ camp on hit show Lost, so too would Chapman’s crowning grace in life come with his successful infiltration of the Teaching Media Facebook group in 2013 – an infiltration for which he would receive even more high fives from co-workers than for his legendary spam email sent to the University of South Dakota’s German department listserv. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

 

It was a warm day in Disco, Tennessee when his mother Gertrude, a teacher at Disco High, gave birth to young Roger after laboring at home for hours. A single mother, Gertrude nevertheless gave Roger the family name of his father and her only true love, Mark David. April 17 was an auspicious day, for only two days prior the NFL had changed the color of penalty flags from white to bright gold. How fitting that a man who masterfully dodged penalty flags his whole life would be born that day!

 

His childhood was uneventful, save for the highlight of his adolescent years, when in 1972, Gertrude made the three hour drive to Nashville so they could both see the young Tanya Tucker delight with her hit “Delta Dawn.” Young Roger loved Country so much, until two years later, Olivia Newton-John won the Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year award; fiercely patriotic Roger couldn’t fathom how an Australian could win such an award, and he parted ways with Country, setting out instead on a musical journey that would ironically end up leading him back away from American music to Dutch death metal, upon Severe Torture’s release, in 2002, of back-to-back albums Butchery of the Soul and Misanthropic Carnage.

 

As a teen, he was known for his funny impressions of television stars of the day, and for his virtuoso one-man, self-written stage version of Hart to Hart. He excelled at math, especially subtraction. In the summers, he would divide his time between circling Disco in his beloved Big Wheels, and working on yet more recipes for canned precooked meats.

 

Upon graduation, he left Tennessee and a tearful Gertrude for the University of Houston-Downtown, where he studied General Business. In between studying and working part-time at an advertising agency, he would watch all sorts of movies, though none delighted him quite as much as did Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach, a film which he still watches weekly and which gave rise to his favorite movie quotes, “Well, I’m sorry to hear that … Captain Dork!” and “You leave the swimming area NOW, mister.” A professor at UHD would write glowingly of him in a reference letter that “Roger is of sound mind.”

 

Work at the advertising agency took off, such that he began there full time following graduation. It is also in the halls of what is now Campbell and Chapman Associates that he met his wife, Christine. They later married, on August 16, 1989. That day, a solar flare from the Sun created a freak geomagnetic storm that affected micro chips and that led to the halt of all trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange; Roger boasted that “our love is electric, baby” as the true explanation. Their honeymoon to Belfast, Northern Ireland was cut short a week later when Dutch dancer Helen le Clerq died and Roger packed his bags to return home saying “I’m just not feeling it anymore, honey.” He still wears a wristband memorializing le Clerq to this day.

 

Roger and Christine live happily in Houston, and Roger’s work continues to provide him constant fulfillment, though he now works exclusively from home, making mad money!!! He is known amongst co-workers as “MC Facebook,” for his remarkable abilities to sell product and evade being banned on the popular social media site. Roger and Christine long ago made a principled stand never to have children until Texas schools no longer insist on teaching geography.

 

Roger’s maxim in life is “I’m ranking things like crazy.” Do you know Roger and have stories to share?

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Selling Lost in Malawi

July 5th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

By way of contextualizing info, I’m currently in Liwonde, Malawi. It’s the second time I’ve been here, doing fieldwork once more (indeed, I posted some observations last time, but my Net access is poor enough that I hope you’ll pardon the lack of hyperlinks — just go look for Malawi tags instead). I’m primarily interested in what films, television, and music are here, how they got here, what’s popular, and what people think of the media around them and think of with that media.

Part of my fieldwork therefore involves hanging out in marketplaces and talking to folk who sell DVDs, CDs, VCDs, etc. I like to see what’s available, usually buy something to make the store-owner comfortable with me, then chat about what people like, whether what I bought is good, and so forth. Indeed, given all my work on parataxts and extratextuals, I’m especially fascinated with how Hollywood and Nollywood are sold in a town in Malawi.

Well, the other day I found a gem. Alongside the usual suspects of CSI, Prison Break, wrestling, and 24 that I got used to seeing two years ago, the latest show to hit the stands is Lost. Yet, I should explain that action does extremely well here — the “video shows” (rooms that fit anywhere from 20 to 50, and that play movies and television on tiny televisions for an admission price of about 3-5 cents) exhibit a lot of Nigerian soaps, but when it’s Hollywood, it’s nearly always Van Damme, Schwarzenegger (and I don’t mean Twins!), Stallone, Cruise, Snipes, Seagal, and friends. With that in mind, it was interesting to see the copy on the back of the DVD package for Season 5 of Lost (spoiler alert):

“Phil and the gunmen showed up, and Jack plotted his course toward the swan. Phil spotted Jack and started shooting at him. Jack shot back and the rest of the group provided cover for Jack by driving him by in the van and shooting. Sawyer snuck up behind Phil and held him at gunpoint, ordering him to tell everyone else to drop their guns. Sawyer told Jack to do his business. The drill wouldn’t shut down. Jack held the bomb over the hole, looked back at Kate and Sawyer looked at Juliet. Jack dropped the bomb and … nothing happened. ‘This don’t look like LAX,’ Sawyer said. Metal objects started being pulled into the hole. Jack was knocked about by a metal box, Chang was trapped for a moment by a piece of scaffolding and Miles helped pull him free. Phil was about to shoot Sawyer, when another piece of scaffolding knocked him over, then a series of metal pipes shot toward him, with one of them hitting Phil in the chest, presumably killing him.”

Just in case you wondered what genre Lost was, we now have an answer, for Malawi at least: it’s full-on action.

Maybe later I’ll type up the waaaaay cooler notes for Season 1.

Apologies, in the meantime, if formatting is messed up here. I can’t access the rich text editor in WordPress here, and my knowledge of html is strictly limited.

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Big Bird, Mr. Snuffleupagus, My Mother, and I

May 9th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

On Mother’s Day, there are many things that remind me of why my mother, Anne Gray, is totally awesome. But I’ll share a media-centric one:

I am a child of Sesame Street, and I say this proudly. I watched a lot of Sesame Street as a child. These were the days before the wonderful Jim Henson died, before the freaky and annoying Elmo moved in, long before Cookie Monster went veggie, and before Mr. Snuffleupagus was visible to the adults on the street.

It’s that last part that’s important to this story here. I’m told that the writers eventually made Snuffy visible in part out of fear that kids wouldn’t share important things with their parents if they saw adults continually refuse to believe in Snuffy’s existence. And for sure, I shared Big Bird’s frustration that nobody believed in his imaginary friend … because my mum had a little game whereby she quite artfully turned her back or left the room momentarily whenever Mr. Snuffleupagus was on the screen. She’d then come back and I’d tell her Snuffy was there, hadn’t she seen him? Always the answer came, “No. Who is ‘Mr. Snuffleupagus’?”

Maybe the writers were right to make Snuffy visible to all, but telling my mum important things was never a problem for me. I do love, though, how she gave me this small bond with Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus, realizing how identification with them could be fun and playful, and letting me have a private relationship with them. Perhaps I’m adding this in retrospect, but my memory, moreover, is that I knew she knew Snuffy existed, but that she continued to turn her back or look away as a small joke. It was a trusting joke, no less, one that let me know that it was okay to have my own relationship with TV characters, and a joke that I see as a symbol of how close she’s always been to me, and yet how much she’s always been willing to let me have my own space. It’s also a joke of which she doesn’t even remember being a part when I discuss it with her now, a fact that makes it all the more wonderful a story for me of how superb she is, since it shows how effortless her brilliant parenting can be.

So today, I’m sure Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus (and Grover and Kermit, no doubt!) join me in wishing my mum a Happy Mother’s Day.

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“I Better Not Have Wasted All This Time on Lost

May 5th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

I’ve heard the title of this post way too many times in the last few weeks. They bug me. But they also say something important about how we watch television, I think.

First, when Eddy Kitses and Adam Horowitz, two Lost writer-producers and University of Wisconsin Communication Arts alumni, visited Madison recently, several of our students shared a version of the lines with them. It’s popped up on numerous websites or Facebook threads I read. And it’s a general mantra as the show approaches its final episode.

But I really hope it is just a mantra, something that gets repeated over and over without a sense of why it’s there and what it means. Because if any fans are honestly pegging all their hopes, investment of time, and their ultimate evaluation of the show on how it ends, I have news for you: the show’s already failed for you.

Granted, a lot’s at stake, and I really hope the writers and actors pull it off. Granted, like most (all?) Lost viewers, there have been times in the last few years when I’ve felt as though they’re just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, and making up the plot willy-nilly. And granted, I want a brilliant ending, something that honors the journey (t)here. But it’s been an incredible ride. If you’ve stuck with it all this time, and have immense anticipation and hopes for the cast and crew to pull off a fantastic finale, surely that’s because its level of quality has told you that it’s fair to expect this. If not, why are you still watching? If the value of the narrative and of the experience still hangs in the balance, you have only yourself to blame for lashing yourself on the back by watching something you’re not enjoying. If, by contrast, you’ve been enjoying it, where’s the “waste”?

I ask that question in part rhetorically, since I think what’s really being said by many fans when they suggest that Lost might have wasted all their time is that they want a conclusion that justifies the time they’ve spent watching the show to others. Conclusions to stories matter, of course, but when you’re really enjoying a story, they matter more to those not watching. Indeed, much negative analysis of shows that someone didn’t watch harps on their conclusions, either of the show as a whole (cf. Sex and the City) or of any given episode, as critics can easily lambaste a show for its apparent closing message rather than paying attention to the journey – a strategy common to lazy textual analyses. Censors and would-be censors love conclusions, too, because that’s where they look for the moral.

But if you love a show, the journey is the thing. For Lost, it might be enjoying Nestor Carbonell’s performance earlier this year, or Michael Emerson’s performance throughout the series; it might be getting swept up by Jin and Sun; it might be a fascination with Sayid’s tortured path; it might be the pleasure of the puzzle, and of endless guessing, hypotheses, and counter-hypotheses. Etcetera. But those are the things that non-watchers aren’t watching. Eventually, all they’ll probably know is that Lost began with a bunch of people who crashed on an island and ended with _______. And, yes, what fills that blank is likely going to make many people laugh. It already does. Smoke monsters, time travel, cursed numbers, and resurrection don’t instill confidence in too many non-watchers. So I wonder if fans who worry about “wasting” their time are simply expressing a concern that when it’s all over, others will think they wasted their time [and yes, I do enjoy discussing “the others” in a post on Lost].

This is where I diverge, though … and where surely many Lost fans should too. See, if you told me back in 2004 where the show would be now, let alone three weeks from now, I wouldn’t have signed up for the ride. Time travel is nearly always handled poorly. Smoke monsters? Alternate worlds? Not one, but two guys who can talk to the dead? Not the stuff I signed up for. But I’ve stuck around because somehow they’ve made it work, or between the bits that don’t work for me, I’ve found lovely moments and characters and storylines. The fact that I’m not alone, and that so many people are still here could on one hand suggest the huge market for science fiction, but we already knew that. On the other hand, it suggests how much the journey, not necessarily the conclusion, matters, even though our culture at large is fond of its mantra that the conclusion’s the thing.

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Noah’s Ark, Julian Barnes, and Norwegian Cruise Line

April 7th, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

This post is about the odd yet fascinating moments when real life and one’s media consumption seem to be stitched together, one informing the other, the text of life seemingly written in concert with the text at hand.

Last week was Spring Break, and I actually took a vacation, on a cruise ship of all places (no, I’m not 65, but it was cheap, I needed sun, and I needed something that required no energy from me). Which further meant I got to read a novel for the first time in a time span that I won’t mention in case my BA and MA in Lit are recalled. The lucky book: Julian Barnes’s excellent A History of the World in 10 and a Half Chapters. I grabbed it off my shelf having only looked at the spine, thinking, “it’s about bloody time I read some Barnes.”

Chapter 1 is set on Noah’s Ark. Chapter 2 involves a terrorist incident on a cruise ship. Chapter 4 sees a woman sail away from an abusive boyfriend and the fear of nuclear war. Chapter 5 is about a shipwreck. And Noah’s Ark and the shipwreck feature in other chapters too. In other words, while I was sitting on a ship, I was reading about a lot of events on ships. When I went to the gym on board one day, they were even playing Titanic on the screens.

The result was a wonderful layering of both experiences, textual and RL. Barnes makes a lot out of the separation of the clean and the unclean for the Ark, and playfully applies it to the cruise patrons in Chapter Two, though not before I’d already amusingly made the connection myself, staring out at the different passengers. As I read that Chapter Two, in which terrorists hijack a cruise ship, I heard a crew member warn a passenger not to venture too far from the pier alone in Guatemala due to local unrest. Titanic played as the ship listed in somewhat rocky seas. The final chapter situates the narrator in a personal heaven that includes the perfect breakfast for every meal, while I enjoyed a buffet breakfast everyday and sat around looking up at the sun and clouds for the rest of the days. And there were countless other small confluences of the world around me and the world(s) in the book, each close enough to one another to make me think more deeply about the unfolding texts, characters, themes, and plots around me.

I love these moments – when real life conspires with fiction to make you think, to add shades of meaning to something that is already demanding reflection. One could see a grander author at work, I suppose, narcissistically (or religiously?) seeing this as some sort of Truman Show scenario in which everything is there for a reason. Instead, I see it as yet more evidence of how much richer any text becomes on the back of other texts and experiences.

We often manage and control such processes, watching specific genres of film or television to match moods or seasons of the year, listening to sad songs after a break-up, etc., using life to fill a text even moreso, or vice versa. But when the moments occur at random, it’s a nice little sign that the chaos that is intertextuality sometimes produces beautiful structures, paths, and meanings.

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What I’m Watching

October 9th, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

What am I watching, now that the dust of pilots has settled? (some shows are more my wife’s than mine, but I don’t disavow any here)

DVR Season Recording
Monday – How I Met Your Mother
Tuesday – nothing
Wednesday – Modern Family, Glee, South Park
Thursday – Flash Forward, Survivor, The Office, 30 Rock (when it starts)
Friday – nothing
Sunday – Mad Men, Amazing Race, The Simpsons

Will Watch If It’s On, But Not Being Recorded
Monday – House, CSI: Miami
Tuesday – Biggest Loser, The Good Wife
Wednesday – New Adventures of Old Christine, America’s Next Top Model
Thursday – Fringe, Bones
Friday – nothing
Sunday – Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Family Guy
Any Night – Food Network

n.b: ABC’s Full Episode Player was giving me way too much grief for me to bother watching Hank or The Middle after my DVR and I’d missed them. So, no review and no inclusion on my list

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A Few Wednesday Morning Links

September 23rd, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

As I catch up with the new shows, some links:

  • Ken Levine’s wonderful account of the Emmys, including his nice snark about Jeff Probst winning: “Hugh Laurie can’t win an Emmy but this guy now has two for saying “Wanna know what you’re playing for?” every friggin’ episode.” (for the record, though, I think he’s the deserving winner – jg)
  • Cable U’s Reess Kennedy on why he doesn’t think he should like Mad Men for the show, yet loves it for its branding
  • With all the other things going on here, I don’t have time to write about them, but the Where the Wild Things Are posters have intrigued me. Go here for a collection of them
  • Issue 3 of Transformative Works and Cultures is out, with, as before, a sizeable and wonderful collection of stuff
  • Fox has picked up Glee
  • The Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) has come up with its Statement on best practices regarding Fair Use for academic teaching and publishing. Read, circulate, and make sure your press sees it too
  • In an article called “Nadir Of Western Civilization To Be Reached This Friday At 3:32 P.M,” The Onion attacks one of ABC’s new sitcom (though, personally, I think Cougar Town seems like the sign of the beast itself), writing “At 9 p.m. Wednesday the ABC sitcom Modern Family will premiere, marking the least-inspired creative endeavor ever attempted by modern man.”
  • Finally, though I’ve been happy to see the Jay Leno Show draw some meh ratings, TV By the Numbers notes that the numbers could look good for NBC, even at this low level
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